In recent years, contemporary guitar-driven music has been a popular feature at churches. But now, congregations across the country, including Louisville, are refocusing on traditional instruments — specifically, the organ. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
Organist Dan Stokes and two organ builders are checking out a notable instrument in Old Louisville’s Central Presbyterian Church. This organ with around 2,500 pipes was built in 1930 by Ernest Skinner, a prominent organ builder of the early 20th century.
“Some notes are very dirty, but it sounds very beautiful,” says Michel Godbout, who is here and works for a Canadian organ company.
“Our artistic director, he heard the sound of the French horn here so he wants me to make about the same sound that he heard,” Godbout says. “So, I just want to hear the sound, take some measurements.”
Godbout and a colleague heard about this organ while in town installing a new one at Christ Church United Methodist, where Stokes works.
After climbing inside the organ at Central Presbyterian, we head out to Brownsboro Road to Christ Church, where Stokes is music director. The organ here cost about $1 million, and takes up a whole wall of the new sanctuary. While the organ builders are inside this organ making some last minute adjustments, Stokes and I go behind it to a ladder.
“Sure,” I say.
Godbout’s colleague, Martin Côté, helps me up.
“If you want, you can count the pipes,” Côté says gesturing to the forst of pipes gleaming around us.
“How many pipes are in here?, I ask.
“Three thousand,” he says.
Stokes sees the beauty of this organ inspiring parishioners to participate in creating moving church music, which he contrasts to the guitar-oriented praise bands that gained popularity in churches in the 1980s.
“I think why the contemporary music came on with such popularity was the organists and church musicians like me killed church music,” Stokes says. “It became so about the performance and people felt like I can’t really participate because I’m not good enough.”
Stokes says that changing now — and so does Tony Thurman of the American Guild of Organists.
“What we’ve seen over the past decade, I believe, in Louisville is a real renewed interest in the organ, a renewed interest in bringing new instruments to the Louisville community and bringing musicians to play them,” Thurman says.
Another new organ in town is at Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral downtown. This standalone instrument that can be moved around the sanctuary has 325 pipes.
Music director Robert Bozeman says many people are attracted to the organ’s traditional and spiritual sound and many Protestant churches are investing in organs.
“There’s this huge amount of work going on in the organ-building industry,” Bozeman says. “If you talk to any of the top builders, they’re just booked for years.”
The Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America backs that with reports of $100 million in yearly sales. But it raises the question: Who will play these instruments?
Over the past 20 years, the number of music students majoring in the organ has fallen more than 30 percent and some prestigious music schools have closed their organ programs. Although the University of Louisville maintains its program, it has no organ majors now, says Bozeman, who teaches there.
Still, he and other music directors are hoping that the work they do will draw young musicians to the instrument. It includes opening church doors to the public for concerts.
And Stokes is working on that one. One eveinng this week, he stands before the new organ leading the choir in an 18th century American hymn they will sing at an upcoming concert.